Wrigley UK: a breath of fresh air

To hold a 90% market share is impressive; to hold that amount within the food and drink sector and to have done so for more than 100 years is even more so; but that’s exactly what Wrigley UK has done. Jonny Williamson discovers how.

The Plymouth facility produces more than a dozen brands, including Extra, Airwaves, Hubba Bubba, Tunes, Lockets, Starburst and Skittles – image courtesy of Wrigley UK.
The Plymouth facility produces more than a dozen brands, including Extra, Airwaves, Hubba Bubba, Tunes, Lockets, Starburst and Skittles – image courtesy of Wrigley UK.

It may be able to trace its roots back across the ‘pond’, but Wrigley has a long and proud history in the UK since launching its Spearmint gum here in 1911.

By 1925, sales had been so successful that the decision was made to build a UK factory, which duly opened in 1927 in Wembley, North London.

After more than 40 years, the factory and UK head office were relocated to Plymouth, with almost a quarter of the workforce also making the move.

Why Plymouth, you may ask. Firstly, air quality was – and continues to be – vastly superior compared to London thanks to the proximity of the sea and Dartmoor National Park, and is something which plays a vital role at Wrigley.

Additionally, the city port’s long heritage of commercial shipping and resulting dockyards had created a wealth of local mechanical engineering talent – skills which were highly desirable to Wrigley at the time. Nowadays, the emphasis is far more on control and electrical skills, aptly reflecting the far-reaching transformation manufacturing has undergone.

A family-owned business for more than a century, Wrigley became a subsidiary of manufacturing powerhouse, Mars in 2008 and produces 34 brands across its global portfolio. Wrigley UK produces more than a dozen of these, including Extra, Airwaves, Hubba Bubba, Tunes, Lockets, Starburst and Skittles.

Breath-taking   

Upon arriving at Wrigley UK’s Plymouth facility there are two things that take your breath away. The first is the panoramic view across the 45-acre site and its open border with the Dartmoor National Park – 25 acres are devoted to natural habitat.

The second is the pleasant hint of mint which permeates the air. That’s little wonder considering that the factory produces more than 4 million packets of chewing gum in a single day. A slightly easier figure to picture is the height of all the bottles Plymouth produces in just five hours – the height of Mount Everest!

Visitors are welcomed with a panoramic view across the 45-acre site and its open border with the Dartmoor National Park – image courtesy of Wrigley UK.
Visitors are welcomed with a panoramic view across the 45-acre site and its open border with the Dartmoor National Park – image courtesy of Wrigley UK.

The introduction of the bottle pack has been tremendously successfully for the company, achieving 20% year-on-year growth. First introduced in the Chinese market around five years ago, the format is one example of the company’s strong innovation culture.

The bottle is recyclable, uses about 20% less material in weight per piece of gum and was re-engineered last year to become even lighter.

By incorporating talc as a ‘filler’, the amount of plastic decreased by half and overall bottle weight by more than 25%, while still maintaining structural integrity.

Innovation is promoted via a “funnel framework”, Kevin Fox explains to me as we walk the production floor. Fox is the supply director, responsible for not only the Wrigley Plymouth site, but the entire UK end-to-end supply chain. It’s this funnel which allows the company to harvest and consider ideas and improvements from both the top down and the ground up across every business function.

Continuous improvement

Similarly, Wrigley’s has a pro-active approach to automation, continually assessing advancements and exploring what benefits could be brought into the business. Over the past five years, Wrigley has invested an average of $5m a year in its Plymouth factory to improve and update its manufacturing processes.

“Wrigley regularly evaluates its non-value add processes, in line with technological developments, and looks to see if operations can be automated,” Fox says. “We aim for a five-year ROI achieved predominantly through process efficiencies and displaced labour able to undertake more high value tasks. The exception to that threshold is any project related to sustainability which may present a longer ROI, but offers additional benefits.”

The factory produces more than 4 million packets of chewing gum in a single day – image courtesy of Wrigley UK.
The factory produces more than 4 million packets of chewing gum in a single day – image courtesy of Wrigley UK.

The health, safety and wellbeing of every one of the 300 Plymouth ‘associates’ is another significant area of investment, Fox adds, accounting for around half of Wrigley’s total annual investment. There is a rolling programme of improvements to the grounds, which has seen an on-site gym installed and the introduction of a site-wide walking challenge.

“Associate absence is at an all-time low of between 2% and 2.5%,” notes Ryan Braddon, Wrigley UK’s operations manager. “We also recognise that we have an ageing workforce, so we offer free occupational and physiotherapy, alongside a robust succession plan and our reinvigorated apprenticeship programme.”

Additionally, Wrigley UK has taken the innovative approach of making Plymouth a completely forklift truck-free site, enabling the safe, free and easy movement of all associates and visitors.

An automated future

In August 2013, a cross-functional project team was set up to explore the benefits of automating the site’s warehousing function. Drawing on experience from warehouse operatives, health and safety experts, control engineers and maintenance technicians, the project was designed to help meet the business’ number one priority – safety.

The initial $2.75m project saw the installation of a new eight lane palletiser with two articulated robot cells, empty pallet feeder, stretch wrap machine and conveyors from the packaging department to the warehouse. Replacing the previous mix of standalone palletisers and a central machine, the project expanded after the site was asked to increase volume in 2014.

The $750,000 expansion saw an additional robot cell installed on the palletiser, bringing the total to three and increasing its capability to 12 different simultaneous products. Astonishingly, production was maintained throughout both phases of the project, which saw the removal of the old palletiser, space cleared for the new system, the installation of completely modern warehouse racking and a brand-new layout.

Since installation, the business benefits have been numerous, including: the automatic use of three different types of pallet, a single system needing to be maintained rather than multiple, a supported system with industrial articulated robots, no need for ride-on forklifts on the production floor, and it can be operated by a single person.